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Following the Romans through Portugal’s Alentejo

The Romans occupied Portugal for more than 700 years, from the 3rd century BC to the 4th century AD, building cities, establishing civil government, farming the land, and connecting settlements with a network of roads.
Rome left lasting imprints: wine production, the use of aqueducts such as those in Evora and Elvas, and Portugal’s Latin-based language. Even the characteristic calçada pavements are thought to have their origin in Roman mosaics. Here are the best places to go in the Alentejo to find reminders of the Romans’ long stay.

A Roman Temple in Évora

The Alentejo’s major Roman monument is in the walled city of Évora, the Templo Romano, whose 14 marble columns stand on an elevated base in the center of the city. You’ll hear it called the Temple of Diana, but this was a 17th-century invention; who it was built to honor is lost in first-century history. 
The temple is the best-preserved Roman building in Portugal, and its preservation owes much to its unglamorous use as a slaughterhouse in medieval times. The walls built to enclose the building held the columns upright and in place over the centuries. This dramatic landmark, even more striking when lighted at night, is Évora’s prime tourist attraction and included in its UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Roman Town of Miróbriga 

Close to Santiago do Cacem, Mirobriga Celticorum was a thriving town from the 1st to the 4th centuries, as you can see by its extensive ruins today. At its heart is the forum, with ruins of government buildings and shops, as well as the imperial temple, the temple of Venus and a third to an unknown local deity. Beyond is Portugal’s only remaining hippodrome with a complete ground plan intact, showing it to have measured more than 1200 by 250 feet. Chariot and horse races would have entertained the crowds here.
Follow a stone-paved road – you can’t help admiring the surface of these roads build two millennia ago – across an arched bridge (another construction form the Romans excelled at) to the two bath houses. Among the best preserved in Portugal, each bath had a gymnasium, changing room, frigidarium (cold baths), tepidarium (hot bath and sauna), caldarium (hot water pools). The complex was heated by a tile-lined underground hypocaust system. 

São Cucufate: A Roman Country Villa

North of Beja, in Vila de Frades, the Roman villa of São Cucufate is impressive even in ruins. Unlike many other Roman sites, much of the outer structure of this sprawling country home is still standing. Begun in the first century as a small villa in the traditional Roman style around a central peristyle, São Cucufate was greatly enlarged in the 3rd and 4th centuries. 
These renovations re-oriented the design into a long façade with multiple open courtyards. The high walls, vaulted galleries and grand proportions echo the pomp of the later decadent empire, but by the middle of the 5th century the villa a was abandoned. Several important artifacts were found in the excavations, including a bronze statue of an emperor in a toga.  

Roman Villa of Pisões

Like São Cucufate, the villa of Pisões dates to the 1st century and was in use into the 4th. Also a farm, Pisões is thought to have been a major market supplier to Beja (Pax Julia in Roman times), about four miles to the east. Re-discovered accidently in 1967, the villa had more than 40 rooms, the most important of which have beautiful mosaic floors with natural motifs and intricate geometric designs.
Visitors also see one of Portugal’s best examples of a private Roman bath, an elaborate complex with a well-preserved hypocaust, as well as a changing room, caldarium, tepidarium, frigidarium and laconicum (sauna). These surround a peristyle with columns and a pool. Remains of farm buildings and a winery have also been uncovered, and a nearby dam of stone and bricks created a reservoir supplying water for the baths, swimming pool and farm uses. 

The Roman Town of Ammaia 

Founded as a town in the first century, Ammaia was reconstructed in the 4th century, but fell into decline as residents moved to the more defendable hilltop fortress of Marvão, just above it. Excavations didn’t begin here until the 1990s, by which time many of the stone features had already been removed for use in churches in nearby towns. 
This is a much smaller excavation than Miróbriga, but parts of the city wall and a gate, the huge paved square, the forum and roads give a sense of the layout. There are ruins of a house, portions of a bath house and finds from the excavations, displayed in a little museum. Few of the tourists who visit Marvão’s attractions realize that a Roman town lies just beneath it.

Mertola’s Roman Past

The riverside town of Mertola was an important port for Roman Alentejo, connecting to trading ports in the Eastern Mediterranean. Evidence of the Roman forum is found in the castle, and during renovations in the municipal offices, ruins of a Roman house were discovered. These have been turned into a museum, showing artifacts that were found there, placed to show their uses in a Roman household.
In addition to the Roman House is a large necropolis from the Roman period. A metal walkway allows visitors to see the cemetery, where tombs are carved into the rock.  In the 16th century a small hermitage was built over the necropolis and now houses a museum of artifacts found at the site.

** Barbara Radcliffe Rogers is the co-author of four books on Portugal and is the Luxury Travel Editor for BellaOnline. She covers Europe for PlanetWare.com. 

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